Voters agreed today to reduce the president's term in office from seven years to five, a change that could dramatically alter the balance of power in French politics for the first time since Charles de Gaulle drafted the Fifth Republic constitution and created the imperial presidency more than four decades ago.
But they did it with an audible yawn and a decidedly cynical shrug.
"Seven years, five years, you can make it 10 years if you want," said Emanuel Cohen, 31, a taxi driver and father of two who said he had no plans to vote. "It won't change anything."
"The right, the left, they're both the same," he said. "They always make promises, and always the taxes go up. I'm more concerned about my life, having a little bit of money on the side, that's all. I know a lot of people like me who aren't going to vote. Or [will] leave the ballot blank."
With all the major political parties and their leaders backing a shortened presidential term, including President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the main suspense was how many people would bother to vote.
When polls closed at 8 p.m., radio and television projected the measure had been approved by 73 percent. Initial reports showed absenteeism was nearly 70 percent, a record for France; in a 1988 referendum on the status of New Caledonia, 63 percent of voters stayed home.
Even many people who voted today questioned what all the fuss was about, and why a referendum was needed for a change that could have been passed by a special session of Parliament.
"It's a good measure," said Dominique, a 65-year-old retiree, who voted at an elementary school in the Marais district in Paris. "But I don't think a referendum is very useful. It's a good thing to vote. But this issue is not very big."
The referendum was held amid general malaise in France, made worse by growing corruption scandals and a tailspin in the government's public approval ratings after it made wide-ranging concessions to striking truck and taxi drivers who blocked oil refineries and depots.
Dominique Moisi, a political analyst, said the change in the presidential term would mark the end of the Fifth Republic, which began in 1958.
"It ends Gaullism, in a very Gaullist way," Moisi said. "The very specificity of the Fifth Republic--creating a monarch for seven years--will disappear. But the low turnout made the change a Pyrrhic-like victory. It's a crisis of legitimacy. It reinforces the lack of credibility of politics."
The proposal to shorten the presidential term has been around for years, at least since de Gaulle resigned in 1969, although the seven-year term predates de Gaulle, extending back to 1873.
The idea took on new urgency after Francois Mitterrand became the first French president to serve two consecutive seven-year terms, from 1981 to 1995. Toward the end, he was an ailing and detached leader, leading many to conclude the mandate was simply too long.
Chirac was against shortening the term when he came to power in 1995, but joined the bandwagon this year for what analysts say were personal political reasons. He will be 70 when his current term expires in 2002, and voters might be more likely to give him another five-year term, but not another seven.
Jospin, who is widely believed to be gearing up for a revenge run against Chirac, actively supported cutting the term as a way to modernize the French political system and end--perhaps--the practice of "cohabitation," the term used when the president and prime minister come from rival parties.
Under the change, elections for president and Parliament would be held at the same time, and supporters say voters would more likely vote for a straight party ticket.
Both Chirac and Jospin face major public relations problems, adding to the mood of cynicism and apathy. Jospin saw his usually sky-high public approval ratings plummet 20 percent when fuel protests paralyzed much of the country earlier this month.
Chirac, meanwhile, has become enmeshed in a growing corruption scandal involving his Rally for the Republic party, from the days when he was mayor of Paris and also prime minister in the 1980s. Last week, a videotape mysteriously appeared in which a now-deceased member of Chirac's party reportedly said secret donations from construction companies were funneled to the party and Chirac was allegedly present at a meeting when the cash changed hands. Chirac has denied the allegations.